Yes, the main attraction of most people's trips to Rwanda (and Uganda) involve the Mountain Gorilla. I started with this photo because it shows what lots of us are feeling in the moment---this photo is sort of like a psychological test---is the gorilla frustrated, sad or just being lazy in the time of social distancing? COVID-19 has already taken a toll on the Mountain Gorillas. We are genetically so close that diseases humans have (colds, flu, etc) can be spread to the Gorillas. Under normal circumstances, a viewing distance is monitored by the park ranger, but since we don't know what (if anything) COVID-19 will do to the Gorillas, Rwanda has temporarily stopped all visits. Ugandan visits are basically on hold because the borders are closed and there are no tourists there to visit the Gorillas. That is OK in the short term out of an abundance of caution, but in the long term it could destroy the progress made against poachers. Poaching was reduced because other ways to make money were introduced with tourism---from trackers to find the gorillas, to wait staff in restaurants and park rangers to provide security for both tourists and the animals, as well as craft people to sew linens, weave baskets, or paint for decoration or to sell to tourists. If those jobs are gone, so are the economic opportunities for the people living in these areas.
So, all of that to say, once borders re-open and travel is possible again, it is even more important than ever to support travel that supports the still endangered Mountain Gorilla (and other sustainable wildlife tourism). There are currently an estimated 1,000 wild Mountain Gorillas in the entire world....up from 480 in 2010. That is a huge accomplishment in a decade and will only continue if visitors come and support the infrastructure in place to save this species.
I know you have all come to my travel blog to hear about my experience. Visiting the gorillas in the wild had been a dream of mine for years. Probably since seeing Gorillas in the Mist or seeing their photos in National Geographic. Sometimes when you are so excited to see something---hype it up so much---the reality can be disappointing or underwhelming. Not so in this case! There are typically 12 gorillas families that can be visited---the other few families are for research purposes only. Each family can be visited by only 8 people each day (plus the warden and trackers). That means only 96 people can have this experience each day. Some families tend to be further away from hiking starting points and other tend to stay closer to the trails. The gorillas are wild, so they move each day. There are no promises as to how long it will take to see the gorillas or even if you will see them at all. Typically, about 95% of visitors see the gorillas, so those are good odds. I asked my driver for a shorter hike as opposed to a long one. I wanted to be in good shape by the time I saw them :) I also have asthma and hiking at 8,000-9,000 feet can be a bit of challenge. I was assigned my group and after a short briefing by our park ranger, we were on our way. We hired porters (similar to my experience on the chimp trekking). Our gorilla family turned out to be about a 2 hour hike in. We were not running up the mountain, but we were not slow.
We were told that we were close to the gorillas and so we had to drop our backpacks and walking sticks and leave them with the porters. We walked maybe 5 more minutes and all of a sudden a bamboo tree moved. We could see a black blur in the distance. We all fumbled for our cameras trying to capture a photo. Looking at those photos now, I could convince you it was a Mountain Gorilla, but you would have to use your imagination :) We were all excited that we had seen one gorilla....smiles all around. The warden used the machete to clear a bit of a path and when we popped our heads out the other side of the jungle there was a little clearing....filled with 10 gorillas! You do have to stay about 20 feet from the gorillas, so the 8 of us were all pushed up against trees to keep the required distance. The gorillas carried on about their day without caring we were there. There was a baby nursing on his mom, several juveniles (3-4 years old) playing and wrestling just like human kids do. They were vocal and grunting and squealing. Some of the younger gorillas were climbing all over their moms and the Silverback (the dominant male) and you could hear the sighs much like human adults let out when they are frustrated with their child. We were lucky and had found them on their rest period after eating breakfast. The guidance is to spend some of the time taking photos---you obviously want to document these beautiful creatures---but also to put down the camera and just experience. Take in the noises, the smell, the facial expressions. There were some shots I missed, but I don't care. The image in my head is as permanent as a photo. One was when the Silverback decided to get up and move. He didn't take his time....he got up and was moving our direction in seconds. Not threatening, just switching locations....but when 350+ pounds moves in your direction, it is hard not to hold your breath or let out a little gasp. You are advised to be quiet---limit talking and when you talk to just whisper. You are also told to stay put and absolutely do not run. This is one instance when the gorillas didn't get the memo about the distance we were supposed to be keeping. Occasionally gorillas make contact with the visitors (mostly accidental) and once the Silverback completed his move, there was about a foot between me and him. The park warden rearranged us to get back to the required minimum distance. You are allowed exactly one hour to be the Gorilla family and trust me, that time goes by in a blur. At about the 10 minute warning, the Gorillas decided it was time to eat again and one by one, they moved into the nearby trees and started climbing. Some of the branches were stronger than others....we heard a thud or two when a branch snapped. At least one of the juveniles thought it was the best game ever. He snapped a branch and came rolling out of the forest with the biggest grin on his face before heading back in and trying again. The gorillas were all either hidden or eating in the trees when we left. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to have seen what I saw. If we had found the gorillas even 30 minutes later, my experience would have been very different. Each family has their own dynamic and the trackers and researchers do get to know their patters well, but this is far from a choreographed event. This is their jungle and we are simply visitors. Talking with other tourists, the Mountain Gorilla experience is different for every group and every day. Some people saw even more playing than we did and others only saw a few members of a group and they saw no playing or interacting....just some napping.
These few photos give you an idea of what the jungle looks like. In the beginning, there are some basic trails. As you get closer to the gorillas, the paths are made by the warden. You basically walk right through the jungle. The photo is of me and Solange, my porter. Even though it is warm, you need to wear long sleeves and long pants since lots of vegetation has thorns or will scratch you. You also need gloves (sticking out of my pocket) as the area is full of stinging nettle---not a pleasant sting, short lived, but still something to avoid.
The hike back everyone was chatting about what they saw and how amazing it was. I was giddy...couldn't believe I had actually seen the gorillas and it was way better than I anticipated. My driver/guide has joked if I would be ready for some champagne when I was done. I thought he was kidding, but upon our return around 12:30pm, he pulled out a bottle from a cooler. The amazing people at the One and Only Gorillas Nest had added the special touch to my packed snack. I've toasted to less momentous occasions, so 3 of us enjoyed a glass while continuing to talk gorillas. I've smiled my way through writing this blog as well....this is truly my happy place. I know that my trip made a difference to the locals as well as the gorillas. I will never forget this experience.
Sometimes life works in mysterious ways...I landed from Africa about a week ago and when I did, the world was different from the one I left 12 days earlier. COVID-19 has changed how we are living at the moment. I write this to re-live wonderful memories of this trip and allow us all to dream and be transported to another place without breaking the rules of social distancing. Travel will come back and when it does, I highly recommend adding Rwanda to your list :)
You may wonder about the title of this post---Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. The country is beautiful! I was able to see a staggering 70% or so of the country in just over a week (Rwanda is roughly the size of Maryland). I began my journey in the capital of Kigali and was immediately taken by how clean, organized and beautiful the city was. This was in contrast to many of the other capital cities in Africa. Rwanda is a leader in environmental legislation and hire people to clean the streets, so they are immaculate. Rwanda has had a ban on one-time use plastic bags for years and I honestly didn't see one anywhere. Also in contrast to other areas of Africa, nearly all of the roads in Rwanda are paved. My dad asked what the roads were like and I said they were way better than those in Chicago (where he lives...).
As you may remember, Rwanda experienced a genocide of epic proportion in 1994---over a million people were killed in a 100 day period. I knew of the genocide in general terms and knew the Tutsi and moderate Hutu people were the main targets. I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda with Don Cheadle. It turns out I knew nothing (and the movie wasn't accurate in many ways). Each region of Rwanda has a Genocide Memorial that includes the mass graves of the victims. The Memorial in Kigali is the most visited and the mass graves there alone hold at least 250,000 bodies. How does one wrap their mind around the kind of number?? The visit at the Memorial begins with a short video of survivors describing their experience and the audio tour and exhibits do an excellent job of explaining how decisions made starting from colonialism (Rwanda was briefly a German colony, before being transferred to Belgium) created an atmosphere over years that allowed this atrocity to happen. It also describes the 100 days and the amazing recovery that has occurred over the past nearly 26 years. It is depressing, but also uplifting to see how Rwandans have handled the aftermath and are now considered the safest country in Africa (and one of the safest in the world).
After my visit I asked my driver very casually if he was in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me that he likely was and that he likely had some terrible stories to tell. My driver has been in the tourist business for over 20 years and sharing his stories are a part of the way he processes what he saw and did during that terrible time. He is Tutsi and had been sent to Uganda in the the months prior so he could continue to go to school. The rest of his family remained in Rwanda. It is not my place to share his stories, but he suffered unimaginable losses. He lost his father, brothers, cousins, friends and so many others. One of his closest childhood friends killed his family. Many Rwandans were in a similar position and they could have all chosen revenge on those that killed their families or they could choose to forgive (or try to forget). An astonishing amount of Rwandans chose not to retaliate---they said they would be just as bad as those that killed during genocide---and tried to move forward. He asked the childhood friend where he could find the bodies of his family and went to try and recover the bodies (this was weeks, if not months, after they were killed). I can't even begin to process how difficult this must have been. He was enlisted in the Ugandan army during and after the genocide--it was the only way to survive---and the stories have no happy endings here as well. Violence took over everyones life in one form or another. He tried to get out of the army to go back to Rwanda to help his remaining family members---his mother and 3 siblings. Eventually a presiding officer took sympathy on him and allowed him a discharge. He brought the money he had earned in the Army to his mother and went to school to be a tourism driver in Tanzania so he could have a future.
We had a chance to talk about the genocide as well as Rwanda today each day as he was my driver for my entire stay in Rwanda. I feel like I know a Rwandan now and have a friend the next time I return :)
I headed to Nyungwe National Forest from Kigali. The main reason I headed here was the chimpanzees. This is one of the few spots in the world you can see them in the wild. I had no idea this area would be so beautiful!
This area of Rwanda grows tea---those are tea plantations in the distance. So green and lush.
The journey to trek for chimpanzees starts early in the day. It is easier to find them earlier in the day before they get active and start moving. I was staying close to the park office, so I could leave at 4:45am, but others in my trekking group were staying further away (not a lot of accommodations in this area) and had to leave at 3am. We were assigned a group of chimps that required about an hour's drive to the hiking start point. Trackers go out early each day to find the chimps and then track them while one of the park wardens lead the group to the chimps (they are in touch by cell phone to have the most up to date info). The maximum number of people allowed to visit the chimps each day is 12. My group had 5 the day I went. I had heard that the chimp trekking could be challenging and a porter was recommended. A porter helps to carry your day pack and help you in tricky parts of the trail. My advice is to take a porter even if you are an expert hiker. These are very rural areas and there aren't a lot of economic opportunities. Tourism related activities employ more people than most other industries (other than tea). Poaching (killing the wild animals) is down dramatically now that tourism has brought other ways to make money. Each spot is different, but the suggested pay for a porter is between $10-$20. That is a large amount for the porter and a drop in the bucket for Americans traveling in Rwanda.
I was surprised to see a woman as part of the porter's group. I asked my driver to hire her for me (many porters do not speak English). I try to employ females during my travels as often as possible. Many women face discrimination and I want to support them. My driver said there are only a few women porters in Nyungwe.
I was there in the very beginning of the rainy season and I knew things might be a little muddy, but I wasn't expecting what I found. I guess this was still nothing compared to how muddy things can get, but the hike to see the chimps can be a challenge---a lot of up and down and to do so on slippery slopes is not fun. I didn't even have a minute to take a photo. The warden begun the hike and it was on...every brain cell was engaged with not falling. The porter Irene probably saved my life (or at least my leg) more than once. We started around 7,000 feet of elevation and gained about 1,000 feet in about 1.5 hours of hiking. I was exhausted by the time we saw the chimps. However, all tiredness was forgotten when I saw the chimps chomping on a fig and leaf breakfast :)
Chimps don't like muddy trails either, so they were all up in t he trees during our allotted one hour of viewing. The forest is quiet---just sounds of the birds and insects----so you can hear them chem and crunch while eating and can even hear them when they are grooming and scratching. It is really a phenomenal experience to be part of their world! The hike back was easier because I had the memories of the chimps fresh in my mind. Needless to say, after all of the mud and help I needed, Irene received a nice tip. It is also customary to trip the trackers and the park warden.
This is just the beginning of my trip experience, but this ends this first blog post. More to come....
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.